I never liked superheroes that much. I’ve enjoyed most of the Marvel movies of the last several years (especially Guardians of the Galaxy, which is really more a space adventure than a superhero flick), but in a casual way: I pay my money, munch some popcorn and get swept up in the adventures of Captain America or Thor, and there’s already something else on my mind by the time I leave the theater.
Jessica Jones, though, I’ll be thinking about for a long, long time.
It’s not just that it nails the gritty aesthetic and atmosphere that other shows, including JJ predecessor Daredevil, only grasp at, or that it’s a scathing female power fantasy that deftly denounces misogyny in all its forms, including our rape culture, which most mainstream fiction won’t touch with a ten-foot Hammer of Thor. For me, Jessica Jones is perfect because it’s the opposite of Marvel’s usual superhero fluff in almost every way.
The second of Netflix’s original, longform Marvel shows, after the aforementioned Daredevil, Jessica Jones concerns the titular character’s chintzy detective agency, Alias Investigations (JJ is loosely based on the comic book series Alias). Jones, played by the perfectly cast Krysten Ritter, is a hardboiled former orphan in a biker jacket with a drinking problem and a serious hang-up in the form of Kilgrave — the best villain Marvel has yet committed to screen.
Oh, and she has superpowers: incredible strength, fast healing, etc. They’re thrown in almost as an afterthought, without a big reveal or dramatic transformation. Jessica Jones is not an origin story. Far from it, in fact: everything that happens in its 13-episode first season hinges on past events that are revealed gradually as the tension ramps up.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe formula has grown tiresome, and Jessica Jones knows it. Never mind that Infinity War, Black Panther and a whole Comic-Con’s worth of other MCU blockbusters are on the horizon of the next few years. We’re living in a post-superhero world, and Jones makes little effort to hide her powers or her identity. When she needs to intimidate someone, she lifts their car up off the ground with them in it. “You’re one of them!” they exclaim, meaning someone with “abilities.” They’re not surprised, but they’re usually fearful — or at least exasperated. Jones is, above all else, a pragmatist, and she uses her powers to her own ends, no longer interested in the dream of putting on a mask and fighting crime.
Given that setup, the typical superhero narrative would proceed with some villain forcing JJ onto a hero’s journey whereby she’d overcome her demons, save the world and become the hero she was meant to be (or something). But Jessica’s demons are too ingrained to be defeated so simply, and the villain is more or less hers and hers alone. Despite the ripple effects Kilgrave’s dastardly antics have on the show’s considerable cast of supporting characters, Jessica is always the focal point.
Kilgrave, who in the comic books goes by “The Purple Man,” thankfully does not actually have purple skin in this incarnation (just several questionable purple suits and sweaters). David Tennant formerly played Doctor Who, but his Kilgrave is as far away from that friendly, inquisitive alien as a character could possibly be. For roughly the first half of Jessica Jones, Kilgrave is a shadowy figure haunting Jessica’s every thought, a specter from her past who won’t leave her alone. Her PTSD is a souvenir from their last encounter, a period in her life that’s gradually revealed throughout the season. Turns out Kilgrave is one thing above all others: a rapist.
He’s a mental rapist as well as a physical one, as his voice can command anyone to do anything. He convinces tables of high-stakes poker players to fold, tells people who annoy him to eat various parts of their own bodies and establishes contingencies against his own death by instructing his victims’ loved ones to kill themselves. And he holds women captive, telling them they love him and thus making it true, at least until his effects wear off. They remember everything when he’s done with them, but he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy. He’s the abusive ex-boyfriend who insists that his victims wanted it all along, convincing himself that they liked it. He’s a true sociopath, his understanding of “right” and “wrong” melded inexorably with his own interests and nothing more.
I can’t think of much that’s scarier than that, but Jessica Jones uses this very comic book-y conceit to tell a surprisingly personal story. Most Marvel villains so far have been concerned with large-scale conquest: destroying New York, or invading another dimension, or gathering the Infinity Stones to accrue ultimate power (looking forward to more of you, Thanos). Bombastic and exciting as these conflicts are, they’re also far away from our everyday experiences. No one actually thinks a big portal is going to vomit aliens all over Manhattan. Jessica and Kilgrave’s intensely personal conflict hits far closer to home.
Kilgrave could use his powers — the ability to make anyone do his bidding — to conquer the world if he wanted. But even when he’s telling an entire precinct full of cops to point their guns at one another’s faces, it’s still a story about a jilted, obsessed lover and the damaged but optimistic non-hero who spends a gripping and dark season clawing her way out from under his control. All he really wants is her, and all she wants is her agency back. That’s something many more people can relate to.
I’m sick of superheroes and their endless life-and-death doomsday wars with supervillains. In Jessica Jones the stakes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have never been lower, and the story has never felt more human, the action never more grounded. I hope this is a negative correlation Marvel takes note of.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He occasionally takes breaks from that to watch entire seasons of Netflix shows in two sittings, but only when they’re as good as Jessica Jones. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.